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John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries

Books & Poetry

Juan Diego Rivera is having trouble with his medication. The pills that help control his heartbeat tend to “diminish” him emotionally and physically, yet despite these side effects he likes to up his dosage – they give him the most vivid dreams.

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The other pills are Viagra, the impetus for addiction being quite clear there.

Because the two prescriptions don’t go hand in hand, I give you the crux of John Irving’s latest book, Avenue of Mysteries: should Juan Diego have a lot of sex or should he dream about his childhood? Looking back to Irving’s oeuvre, I see this as a common theme.

Irving has long been a safe place for me. When I pick him up, I know what I’m going to get: a thick book of tragic humour where relationships unfold in a fast-paced, light-hearted, personal, accessible prose.

He’s like an old friend I don’t have to analyse. One I can just enjoy for the sake of enjoyment. But I wonder if Avenue of Mysteries has gone too far? My ultimate thought upon finishing this book was: I wish it had been something new.

As in his other books, Avenue hosts a lively bunch of characters. Edward is a failed Jesuit priest from Iowa, eternally dressed in Hawaiian shirts. He falls in love with Flor, a Mexican transvestite prostitute (yes, gender bending is another of Irving’s go-tos). These two are like jesters throughout the book and I sometimes felt uncomfortable accepting their roles as such.

Miriam and Dorothy show up in every city on Juan Diego’s journey, and lucky for him because they are the mother-daughter duo who alternate as his lovers. I found their roles to be over-indulgent for both the male protagonist and the male author.

Lupe can tell what everyone is thinking and spurts out bold judgements that no one understands because her Spanish is like another language. Only her brother Juan Diego knows what she is saying. Young Lupe is in the adult Juan Diego’s dreams, so the book is mostly about their relationship, about what events led them to the time and place of her death.


Lupe is most certainly the darling of the book and as colourful as she is, I could have done without the repetition of no one understanding her. It feels as if Irving doesn’t trust his readers’ intelligence or memory. What could have been clever craftsmanship unfortunately became redundant and it wore on me about a quarter of the way through the novel.

I hate to come across as bad-mouthing a book that is multi-layered, imaginative and pretty much fun, but I suppose I am. When you are a fan of an author, you just want to experience the same feelings you felt when reading the best of that author’s books – in this case, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year. But that is impossible, I know, and Avenue of Mysteries is so far from any of those books.

So read this review as being romantically biased, and take my reluctant thumbs-down with a grain of salt.


Avenue of Mysteries, by John Irving, is published by Random House, $32.99.


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